Taking up space in the world is a Bad Thing for women to do. We waste a lot of energy and time worrying about whether or not we are taking up too much space. …
How do you want to take up space? How do you want to let yourself sprawl, in your professional or personal life?
In the wake of the letter informing me that I had been awarded tenure, I’ve been thinking about sprawl and containment a lot.
My strategy for my six years as an untenured assistant professor was to come in to the office Monday through Friday and hunker down. Verily, there has been no shortage of pressing tasks with which to hunker down: designing classes, preparing for classes, teaching classes, responding to student work from classes, reading papers and books relevant to my research projects, doing writing for those projects, navigating endless tasks related to my committee work, …
Clearly, my to-do list has no reservations about sprawling.
My commute to campus, while not the worst ever, is not insignificant, so my colleagues would sometimes ask, “Why come in every day? Why not save yourself the commute time by doing some of this work from home?”
Would it surprise you that these questions came almost exclusively from the colleagues without kids?
The reason I drove to campus five days a week was that campus availed me of a dedicated place to work that no one was going to mess with. Sure, for many of the six years of my probationary period, my office was packed like a can of sardines. And it’s absolutely true that getting good thinking done while an office-mate is conducting office hours can be a real challenge. But I had a desk that was mine and a physical — and psychological — boundary between it and the sphere of my home life.
At home, until very recently, I didn’t even have a desk of my own.
This is not to say that my work life did not sprawl into my home life. How could it not? I teach, and those papers don’t grade themselves. Also, it seems to be an essential feature of mind-work that the mind has control over when it’s in the mood to yield the good stuff — even if it’s at 6 AM on Saturday morning. Academics seem to take for granted that their work will spill over into the hours that many who work at non-academic jobs seem able to rope off and designate as personal time.
But my hunch is that female academics with children feel guilty about this spill-over. I know I have. It has felt like a failure on my part that my career has taken up space that rightly belonged to my family. It has felt like, if only I were more efficient (or could get by on less sleep), I would be able to police the boundaries between work and life better. Then I’d have more time to play, or to weed the garden, or to bake bread.
Except that my academic career is part of my life. What I think about, teach about, and write about for a living is not, to me, just important because it helps me put food on the table and clothes on the sprogs’ backs. It is part of who I am. Seeing what I do in my work life, and why it matters to me, will (some day) help my children understand me as a person, not just as their mother.
And even if I didn’t identify so strongly with my work, working would still be part of the fabric of my daily life. Why, as a mother, should I feel like I need to hide that from my kids? Working is something that grown-ups do to contribute to the running of society. It’s not something shameful.
Given that in the coming academic year, my home will be the primary locus of my academic work, I think it’s time for me to kiss the shame goodbye.
I will not feel bad about allowing my work life to have a presence in my home life.
I will not feel bad about kicking the kids out of the living room (where my desk at home resides) when I need to have a quite chunk of time in which to think and write.
I will make a point of talking with my kids about what it is my work involves — at both the macro- and the micro-level. I will not hide the frustrations or the joys that go with it. I may even make them read drafts of paragraphs to see how much sense they make.
My career is not my whole life, but it is part of my life I love and value. So is my family. Rather than trying any longer to police a hard boundary between the two, I’m going to give the guards some time off and see if career and family can stand some more sprawl in both directions.